In the mid 1990s Italian researchers located a neuron in the macaque’s brain that fired whenever the monkey reached out and grabbed an object. During a coffee break, the neuroscientists looked over and saw the monkey’s neuron was firing away—but the monkey wasn’t reaching for anything. Instead, the macaque was watching the experimenters reach for objects. The real arm and the idea of an arm in symbolic space are controlled by the same neuron. (Be patient, I’m working up to what this has to do with writing).
Further experiments found that humans, indeed, have these “mirror neurons.” UCLA researchers discovered when a person watches another person being poked with a needle, the same neurons fire as when the watcher is pricked. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran calls them “empathy neurons” or “Dalai Llama neurons,” but to me they seem to cross the line from empathy to complete identification with other. (Maybe “identity neurons”?)
What does this have to do with writing? The first thing that comes to mind is the value of vivid, detailed writing. This, from Up From Dragons: The Evolution of Human Intelligence: “When we imagine ourselves running… our heart rate goes up. In one study, a group of people imagining physical exercises increased their strength by 22 percent, while doing the real thing gained only slightly more, by 30 percent.” (The mirror neurons are also a good argument for reading good writing.)
But something more complicated comes up. In J.M. Coetzee’s novel, Elizabeth Costello, the main character addresses ‘The Problem of Evil.’ In this section of the book, Elizabeth was “under the malign spell of a novel she was reading. The novel was about depravity of the worst kind, and it had sucked her into a mood of bottomless dejection.” The book she was reading was about Hitler and Hitler’s would-be assassins, which included a long section describing the execution of the plotters. …”page after page, leaving nothing out; and that is what she read, sick with the spectacle, sick with herself, sick with a world in which such things took place, until at last she pushed the book away…” She comes to question Western civilization’s belief in unlimited and illimitable endeavor, especially as it pertains to writing. "She has begun to wonder whether writing what one desires, any more than reading what one desires, is in itself a good thing."
Loaded words come up right away, 'censorship' in particular (and 'censure'). When I was reading Coetzee at the time, I put the book down and found a letter written by Chekhov dated May 30, 1888. Chekhov, the master of the modern short story, writes, “The writer’s function is only to describe by whom, how, and under what conditions… The artist must be only an impartial witness of his characters and what they said, not their judge.”
So how will this new scientific discovery alter literature? What are the ethical responsibilities of a writer? Are there any? Ramachandran says the fifth revolution is the neuroscience revolution (following Copernican, Darwinian, Freudian, and the discovery of DNA and the genetic code), and central to the revolution are mirror neurons. Freud had a major influence on literature—a movement to the interior, stream of consciousness, an awareness of something other than surface appearance, to name a few influences. Are mirror neurons the next big influence?
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